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Quiet Observation: Three East Anglian Painters

The intense heat of the last week has made drawing outside tricky for cool-loving creatures like myself and I thought instead I would retreat indoors to share with you three of my favourite painters of East Anglian life and landscape, all of whom happen to be women.

I came across the first artist, Elinor Bellingham – Smith (1906 – 88), in April, 1999 when I fell across an exhibition on a day trip to Bury St Edmunds, in the now closed “Manor House Museum,” on the evocatively named “Honey Hill”, entitled “Suffolk: A Female Focus”. At least that is what my scrappy notes in my sketchbook called it, and yet I can find no reference to it at all on the internet, nor any mention of the paintings I see in my notes, and only scant reference to the artists I saw.

The Island, 1951

And yet this small event had a huge impact on me. Her paintings of stark trees in diluted wintry sun reflected to me the magical quality of the landscape I loved. Painted in staccato brush strokes in soft greys and browns, they are lonely, unsettling spaces though sometimes they are inhabited by children who peer out, amidst the rushes and teasels, looking as though they have stepped from an M.R .James ghost story. Bellingham – Smith was a student at the Slade, under Henry Tonks, and settled in Boxford, Suffolk in 1957, after her marriage to the painter Rodrigo Moynihan failed.

The Willow 1930-1960

There is little written about her work, and only 12 paintings are shown on Art UK, but I hope you share my love of these strange, delicate works and seek out the others to see for yourself.

My next choice is another artist whose sensitive, delicate drawings would sit well with the previous landscapes. I discovered Elisabeth Vellacott’s (1905 – 2002) graphite tree portraits at Kettle’s Yard, where their unassuming beauty lay perched against a bookcase. Made up of tiny, soft strokes in a balanced compositional space, they are drawings to be gazed at and slowly absorbed in tranquility.

Bare Trees and Hills, 1960

During the Second World War she went to lodge with Lucy Boston, the creator of the Green Knowe stories, in her Manor House at Hemingford Grey and later Boston’s son designed and built her a studio in the grounds. Her first solo exhibition came well after the usual retirement age, in 1968, and it was only in her 90’s that the Tate recognised her worth and began collecting her work. Her dogged pursuit of her gentle vision is a lesson to us all that it is never too late.

Trees and Sky, 1968

My last choice is very different, though sharing a love of the overlooked and unassuming, she moved from the broader landscape encouraging us to notice the small details within it.

Mary Newcomb’s ( 1922 - 2008) work brings us joy. The often childlike simplicity of her work belies the sophisticated use of vibrant colour. In her work, she invites us to observe and be curious about the natural world and commonplace incidents within it.

In her diary she said:

“I wanted to say these things and to record what I have seen to remind ourselves that – in our haste – in this century – we may not give time to pause and look – and may pass on our way unheeding”.

This diary began in her 64th year, and was kept just for that year, but within contains vignettes of things noticed, each a small story that would sometimes step into her paintings:

“ 2nd May: Today a man cycled madly down a hill between yellow rape fields, head down,

trousers flapping."

The painting I have chosen below, “Lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams” is typical of her work. The oversized, exuberant bunch of cottage garden flowers with a lady hidden, teetering behind them in a sturdy skirt, in a typical East Anglian landscape. It makes your heart sing. The soft, dusky pinks of the blooms are perfectly set against the umber fields of a parched midsummer’s day and become the focus of our attention. Is she on the way to bedeck the church or has she just picked them from her allotment? We shall never know, but we are very glad to have met her.

Lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams, 1988

Another favourite is “A Flock of Goldfinches Dispersing” (1993-5) and shows us a charm of goldfinches feasting on seedheads, whooshing in and around them. Their black and white markings are only briefly delineated and yet the scene perfectly conveys their striking colour and busyness.

A Flock of Goldfinches Dispersing, 1993-5

It is such moments captured, in her fresh, unique vision, that make her paintings such treasures, helping us to to stop a moment and look, something we sorely need to do.

Writing this has, of course, made me reflect on my decision to choose these particular painters, what it is that attracts me to them and what I want to convey in my own drawings and paintings. Looking at the work of much loved artists helps us see the world from their perspective, encouraging us to seek what they see and record our own response, whether in words or pictures. What I love about each of them is their ability to observe, to look with care and note what makes the East Anglian landscape, and the trees and creatures within it, so distinctive and yet so easily missed. It is a place of small pleasures. But, what it lacks in drama, it makes up for in a quiet beauty. Sitting in the fields and by hedgerows, through the seasons, you see the subtle, shifting changes and it is that which keeps me going out and keep trying and keep looking.

I would love to hear of your favourite artists and why they are important to you and perhaps how they reflect your local landscape. Drop me a line in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing from you!

You can see more of Mary Newcomb's work here.

You can read about Elisabeth Vellacott, and other East Anglian artists, in "A Broad Canvas : Art in East Anglia since 1880" by Ian Collins.

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4 comentarios

25 jun 2023

Lovely article on three very interesting painters. I’m particularly drawn to Mary Newcomb. I discovered her work on 2000 and it has a gentle beauty and simplicity that I love. You asked for our favourite artist. Mine is Victoria Crowe

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I find Mary Newcomb's work so cheering and her use of colour is glorious. I could have chosen so many of her paintings! Since writing it, I discovered that the goldfinches painting was lost in a fire in her publisher's flat, which I suspect is why I was unable to find the dimensions of it. What a sad loss.

I love the work of Victoria Crowe and recently bought the Scottish Gallery's book of her exhibition. I find her spare, winter trees especially beautiful. Thank you for popping by and reading this.

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21 jun 2023

I love the idea of female artists carrying on until old age, or perhaps only being free to paint at all in later years. It was a long time before I had the courage to pick up an oil brush! Linda (veg artist)

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Dear Linda,

Thank you for coming along and taking the time to read it.

I think in the case of Elinor Belling -Smith especially, she spent a great deal of time supporting her husband's art and playing host to his artistic circle. It was only later, moving to Boxstead, that these lyrical paintings emerged and am so glad they did. Elisabeth Vellacott just kept going and produced work right to the very end of her long life. I found it very heartening that she did so and like you have returned to painting after a very long absence. I wish I had done so sooner!

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